LoveChild 16: My Father’s Story
“The quality of a father can be seen in the goals, dreams and aspirations he sets not only for himself, but for his family.”
Robert Alexander Shaw, the fifth son of George and Jennie Shaw, was born on a cold February day in 1912. It was a Tuesday. The 13th.
Jennie had a difficult pregnancy, and the baby was premature. Less than two pounds and barely breathing.
The midwife decided that her primary job was to make sure Jennie survived. There were too many other children who needed their mother to worry about a baby who likely wouldn’t make it no matter what she did.
So she quickly wrapped the baby in a blanket and put him in a shoe box, which she then shoved under the bed.
When my mother first told me this story, I thought how heartless the midwife was. But recently I read an amazing story about Martin Couney and his Coney Island Incubators. He charged 25 cents for onlookers to see premature babies lying in incubators he'd imported from France. His reason for doing this was to save the babies. In those days, many doctors in the United States, and I'm going to assume Canada as well, "held the view that premature babies were genetically inferior 'weaklings' whose fate was a matter for God. Without intervention, the vast majority of infants born prematurely were destined to die."
When George Shaw came into the bedroom a little while after the birth, he immediately asked to see the baby. The midwife told him what she'd done. George pulled out the shoe box, and discovered the newborn was still breathing. He quickly called for his daughter Margaret, who was then 13, and made her get into her bed and lie on her back. He then set the baby on Margaret’s chest and carefully covered them both with blankets, using the heat from her body as a natural incubator.
The tiny baby survived, and eventually grew into a six-foot-tall man.
Jennie survived, too. She even gave birth to her 12th baby, Violet Jane (Jean), two years later.
Robert's christening gown was one of the few possessions his mother kept. Whether it was only his or had been used for the other babies, I don't know. All my mother said was that this was my dad's christening gown. And it is very small. As is the little hat that they would have put on him to take him to and from church in the buggy.
I'm going to include a few pictures of the details. I don't know who made it—likely Jennie or another family member.
It consists of a heavy plain underdress that feels like muslin, and a light cotton overdress that has all kinds of intricate embroidery.
Note: Click on the pictures to make them larger.
The Young Boy
As was the case with my mother, I have very few pictures of my dad when he was young. Or the other members of his family, for that matter.
This picture of him is taken from the family picture I included in the last post. I'd guess he's about 10 or 11. He looks very sombre, but that's how they all seem to look in formal pictures back then.
But his eyes show he's thinking. Quiet, maybe, and well-behaved right now, but watchful.
He told me his older brothers taught him to smoke “out behind the barn” when he was eight years old.
The Shaw children, as well as their neighbours, went to a one-room country school, either riding horseback or driving a buggy to get there.
Robert turned 13 just five days before his father’s death on February 18th, 1925.
Jennie was left with a farm to run and four children still at home—Walter (18), Sarah (16), Robert (13), and Jean (11). Fortunately, George Brown Shaw had left them a well-run farm, and with the help of the children still at home, as well as the older ones who still lived in the areas, Jennie kept it going.
Robert didn't like school much. Arithmetic wasn't too bad, but he had a lot of difficulty learning to read, and his spelling was terrible. He tried his best, but found it very frustrating. More than once, his teacher told him he was "stupid." (I don't know if he had more than one teacher or the same one through elementary school.)
Being a farmer's son, Robert had already been helping on the farm, but while his dad was unwell and after his death, he had to help even more. He was actually happy to leave school after grade eight and work on the farm full-time.
While he learned to read well enough to read the newspaper, Reader's Digest, and the odd Louis L'Amour novel, he read slowly. And he was always embarrassed about writing because he had so much trouble spelling the words.
On the evening of October 19, 1989, Robert, who was then 77, was watching the Cosby show. It was the episode in which Theo Cosby was diagnosed with dyslexia.
He became excited. "That's me! That's what I had! The letters at the ends of the words were always changing!"
Of course, when he was in school, no one would have known about dyslexia. But I can't understand why any teacher would call a young boy "stupid."
Fortunately, he didn't let that foolish label make him give up, even though it would have been easy to do. Instead, he spent his life proving it was wrong.
I don't remember ever seeing him as excited as he was that night in the middle of the Cosby show. I believe it was because he finally felt validated. Even though he'd proven it many times over the years, he really wasn't stupid! Nor was he to blame for the difficulties with reading and spelling over the years.
Robert is a young teenager in these pictures.
Leaving the Farm
Walter and Robert had been doing the bulk of the farm work, looking after the animals as well as the crops. But unlike most of their family members, neither of them wanted to be farmers.
On Oct. 14, 1931, Walter, who was then 26, married Marguerite Prior. Not long after that, they moved to Brandon.
Either before or shortly after this, Jennie sold the farm and rented a restaurant in the nearby village of Kelloe, where her parents and a few other family members lived. Jennie cooked and baked, 24-year-old Sarah cleaned, 19-year-old Robert manned the cash register, and 17-year-old Jean waited on tables.
On Nov. 29, 1933, Sarah married a farmer from the area, Alf Mitchell.
The following year, Jennie's mother died.
Meanwhile, Jennie's daughter Margaret and her husband, Albert Roney, were having a hard time on their farm near Imperial, Saskatchewan. A grain farm is never secure, and this was the dirty thirties, named so because of the droughts that dried up the soil and the dust storms—winds that blew the soil into the air and away. The financial depression of those years further complicated it because there were no options like "move to the city to get a job." Saskatchewan and Alberta were particularly hard-hit.
Jennie was fortunate to have sold the farm when she did. Margaret and Albert weren't as fortunate, and they needed help.
A Life-Changing Move
By 1935, Jennie had sold the restaurant in Kelloe and bought a house in the city of Brandon, Manitoba, a few blocks from where Walter and his family were living. Jennie, Robert, and Jean shared a two-storey house with Margaret and Albert.
Jennie had what would have been the sitting room at the front, with a door on it. It served as both her sitting room and her bedroom.
Albert and Margaret had a small room that had been added onto the back of kitchen for their bedroom. The tiny kitchen had a very large wood stove that supplied heat for the add-on bedroom. There was also a small two-piece bathroom.
Between the kitchen and Jennie's room was a crowded dining room/living room/music room (Margaret played the piano).
Robert and Jean had their own rooms upstairs, and there was at least one extra room for them to take in a boarder. They all shared the bathroom and would have had chamber pots as well.
Albert found a job as a mechanic.
Jean got a job as a waitress in the Lyceum Cafe.
Although it wasn't a job he wanted, Robert found work in the meat department of a grocery store. His grade eight education and his continued difficulty reading and writing put a lot of jobs out of his reach. While he didn't much like his job, and the actual butchering of the meat was hard work, because of his experience growing up on a farm that had a lot of animals, he had the needed skills.
A Few Pictures of Robert and His Family in the Early 30s.
There Has to Be More
So, by 1935, Jennie and four of her children lived in Brandon, with the rest in the general vicinity of Rossburn. All were married except the two youngest, Robert and Jean, who were 24 and 22.
Although he was the youngest son, and, according to some theories would have been less likely to take on responsibility than an older or only child, in reality Robert was a very responsible person. He came from a line of hard workers, so he never shirked work. But he really didn't want to be a farmer. And he didn't want to work in a butcher shop, either, although at this point he had little choice. I'm sure he must have felt confused and frustrated, wondering what his future held. As did Jean, who hadn't yet found a man she cared for enough to marry, and had no real training for a job other than waiting tables.
What did the future hold for them?
. . .
Can You Relate?
Louis L'Amour's cowboy characters, especially the Sacketts, often used the phrase, "I had it to do." I often think of that phrase when I have something I don't want to do, but need to. And then I think of my dad and his parents and their ancestors. They were people who weren't afraid of hard work, didn't take the easy way out, and basically did what they had to do in order to survive.
Can you think of members of your family who had this sort of mentality? Or did they have a different way of looking at things? Sometimes we do the opposite of what our parents did, too. Who or what do you think of when you have something you know you need to do, but don't want to?
. . .
LoveChild: Life Lessons from an Ugly Duckling is the story of my struggle to adjust to the life I was given, and my eventual discovery that, not only had I become a swan but, contrary to my perceptions, I had always been one. Though I didn't realize it until many years later, my life was part of a much bigger plan that all made perfect sense.
I'll be blogging my story once a week.
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